Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russia Needs New Approach on Ethnic and Civic Identities, Tishkov Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, April 15 – One of the Russian Federation’s “unique features,” Moscow nationality expert Valery Tishkov argues, is that a non-ethnic Russian nation [“rossiiskaya natsiya”] has emerged but it has not submerged the ethnic nations be they Russians or non-Russians who are part of it.
But if that combination exists, he and other participants at a Moscow roundtable on the country’s nationality policy said, there is not in the Russian constitution or any Russian law a definition of what a “rossiyanin” or member of this civic nation is or any document which defines the identity of its members (
Worse, those taking part in the meeting suggested, the Russian Federation lacks a clearly defined nationality policy, something they said the country clearly needed not only in general but in particular in response to the challenges that the current economic crisis is placing on the social ties within the country.
In his opening remarks, Academician Tishkov, who heads the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology and is a member of the Social Chamber, said that “despite serious tests posed by developments in the North Caucasus, Russia has established itself as a national state and ‘rossiyane’ as a nation.”
Those “who considered that only an ethnically based nation could create a nation are wrong,” the specialist on nationality policy said. In fact, the “rossiiskaya natsiya’ in and of itself is an ethno-cultural phenomenon. But from this it does not follow that it is necessary to create some kind of artificial people out of the citizens of our country.”
“The uniqueness of Russia is in its multiplicity,” he continued, and in order to preserve and advance that, Tishkov said, the time has come “for the preparation of a platform so that ‘rossiyane’ can adopt a new conception of national development,” one that will meet the demands of the 21st century.”
Many view Tishkov’s own conception as simply an updated version of the widespread notion at the end of Soviet times that the USSR had created a new “Soviet people” without threatening the existence of the various ethnic nations, including both the Great Russians who formed a minority and many peoples who now are the titular nations of independent states.
But in fact, Tishkov’s argument represents a departure from or at least a development of that idea, and his innovations gets him in trouble with members of one another political camp. Unlike Soviet-era ideologists, who were generally careful to use the term “narod” or people rather than “natsiya” or nation, Tishkov self-confidently uses the latter.
That represents an implicit threat to the ethnic understanding of both the ethnic Russians and the ethnically non-Russian groups, who now form roughly a quarter of the population. On the one hand, it challenges ethnic Russians who want to transform the country’s civic consciousness into an ethnic one in order to create “a Russia for the Russians.”
Many of these people see Tishkov’s ideas as an attack on the special role of the ethnic Russian nation both now and especially in the future. But many non-Russians are equally unhappy with his ideas, viewing them as a virtual invitation to end the special treatment of non-Russians and thus increase pressures on their members to assimilate to the ethnic Russian nation.
Not surprisingly, other participants in this roundtable echoed these concerns, although most were careful to present their ideas in ways that could be taken to be a development of the views of Tishkov, given his close ties to the powers that be, rather than as a direct attack on his argument.
A close reading of the reports on this meeting suggests, however, that there was some very real dissent. Abdulkhakim Sultygov, the editor of the “Vestnik rossiskoy natsii,” not surprisingly sided with Tishkov given the name of his journal, but even he suggested there are problems on the nationalities front.
Sultygov pointed out that “the financial crisis is a serious challenge” to Russian society, “equal to the challenge of the 1990s when the war in Chechnya blocked state development.” And although “the country overcame [that] systemic crisis [and] the ‘rossiiskaya’ nation was established and created,” the country needs “a new conception” of nationality policy.”
Other participants called attention to the growth of ethnic self-consciousness not only in Russia but in Europe, and while they suggested that Russia was “unique” because it did not promote assimilation, that was not the end of the problem given the diversity of its population and the increasing self-awareness of its ethnic minorities.
“Russia,” several speakers said, “is a federation in spirit but not in form,” according to the report in the “Azerros” newspaper, the outlet of the Azerbaijani community in the Russian Federation. “In this,” they said, “is the greatness of the country, but in this also a very real danger.”
The number of republics within the Russian Federation “where the titular nations form more than half of the population,” they said, “is growing,” the result of migration flows and differential birthrates, and the fraction of non-Russians in many regions is increasing as well, creating many problems for both local officials and Moscow.
And in its report on the meeting, “Azerros” asked, “how many people of Russia will continue to consider themselves ‘rossiyane’? How will they relate to the formation of an ethno-nation? [And] how far can ethno-national self-consciousness develop before it constitutes a threat to the unity of the state?”
Those were all questions that were answered one way in1990-91. And while it is certain that as speakers at the meeting said, “’Rossiiskoye’ society now is not what it was” then. But if a parallel outcome is to be avoided, they suggested, then “serious correctives” in the country’s nationality policy are needed and needed now.

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